Colour Vision in Aviation: Part 3
In this third part of the series I want to outline some of the key points of disagreement with the Department's Aviation Medicine Branch on their persistence in restricting pilots with abnormal colour vision. As backup material I possess a mountain of documentation both from within and without the Department. I should also point out that the officers of the D.O.A. have, on the whole, been courteous and helpful in granting a lot of the documents that I have requested. Courtesy and co-operation, however, do not substitute for reason and a willingness to be objective. I have always believed that it is every doctor's responsibility to seek truth, but I regret that the Aviation Medicine Branch seems to have opted for bureaucratic obstinacy and protection of its own authority.
Let me firstly give a brief outline of the history of my debate with the Department over the Colour Vision Standard. At my first medical for the Department in 1977, I was informed of the already known fact that my colour vision was not normal and that as a result I would be given a licence with certain restrictions. These were as follows: I should not be allowed to pilot an aircraft at night, to fly internationally or to fly in controlled airspace without properly functioning two way radio apparatus. This prompted me to write to the then Director of Aviation Medicine Branch, Dr John Lane, asking him to give some sort of logical reason for these restrictions. In short, he replied that as Australia was a signatory to certain international conventions the restrictions were essentially a fulfilment of our obligations to ICAO. More letters followed and three facts eventually emerged. The first was that Australia's obligation to an international treaty was pure myth. The second was that the main area of concern for the Department was that of colour coded navigation light system and the possibility that those with abnormal colour vision would not be able to use such a system properly to assist in collision avoidance. The third was that he himself (Dr Lane) was not happy with the situation as it stood and that the Department was to commission experimental studies to 'determine the usability of the colour coded navigation light system.
That experimental study was eventually, after several years of delay, completed by the Victorian College of Optometry, under the authorship of Professor Barry Cole, at an expense to the Department of some thirty thousand dollars. I have studied the documents pertaining to this study very closely and have shown it to a wide variety of people with scientific training. In short, it was a study conducted most unscientifically. It ignored the most fundamental and essential components of the visual tasks involved in the process of "collision avoidance". The experiments were contrived in such a way as to make the outcome a foregone conclusion. The findings of this study, irrespective of the poor (unscientific) methods used, were that the colour coded navigation light system was USABLE, albeit secondary to the principle of "fixity of bearing" and should therefore be retained and that restrictions on colour defective pilots should remain. I would be delighted to provide a copy of this study to any reader who requests it and let them be the judge of how well that money was spent.
At about the same time, there were published in the prestigious "Aviation, Space and Environmental
Medicine" journal the findings of two American researchers, Dille and Booze, that colour defective pilots' accident rates were not significantly (statistically) different from the colour normal rate, when based on the rate per hundred thousand hours of flying exposure. This study and others that followed were completely ignored by our own authorities.
The next major development came in 1983, when the Department announced that 'there was to be an easing of the restrictions on the milder deuteranomal. The invited subjects were to undergo more detailed colour vision analysis and provided they were deutans (see PART One of these articles) and had an error score of FOUR or less (the previous cutoff was TWO errors), then the restriction on night flying would be lifted. However, these individuals were still to be restricted to licence levels up to CPL (i.e. no higher). I was mistakenly sent a letter by D.O.A. inviting me to have these further tests. At this point I recommenced by campaign to discover the rationale behind the change in ''the standard''. lf there was to be an easing of restrictions, surely there must have been some new scientific evidence to justify the move from TWO to FOUR errors. If there was any such evidence, the Department didn't have it. That was abundantly clear. But where was the scientific evidence to justify ANY restriction on the colour defective population? As time would reveal, the Department didn't have that either!
As I asked myself these questions, my resolve hardened to fight this issue, to the bitter end. The courts would have to be the-answer. I had written to Minister of Aviation and other politicians, only to be fobbed oft with, platitudes and promises of more experimental studies. I had had several interviews with Dr Lane and representatives of the Flight Standards Division over the years with the same result. It seemed that the only way was to mount a legal challenge.
I wrote two separate requests to the Secretary of the Department asking that the restriction on night flying be removed from (a) my Commercial Pilot Licence and (b) my Class One Instrument Rating. With the requests I sent detailed arguments and evidence about the absence of ANY evidence that colour defective pilots were unsafe. My request was of course denied. The reason given for denying the request was that "scientific evidence shows that the colour coded navigation light system is the only invariable cueto collision avoidance at night" and "that any hesitation in interpreting the relative movement of coloured, lights would cause a potential collision risk". I assure you that the Department has no evidence at all and that the statement it pure bunkum.
The next step in this saga was to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review the Secretary's decision, as was done in due course. A mass of evidence was prepared by myself and the solicitors which would show up the Colour Vision Standard for what it was, NONSENSE. Affidavits were obtained from experts in Optometry, Aviation Medicine and Aviation in general to support my arguments. But this is a very big issue and the Department does not give in easily. Remember that some eight to ten percent of males are "colour defective" and that therefore the issue affects perhaps two to three thousand Australian pilots: So what does the Department do? It doesn't want to argue the scientific merits of restrictions on, colour defectives because there are none. It doesn't want the matter adjudicated by an independent tribunal because that would be embarrassing. So it goes to the Tribunal and says "You (the AAT) do not have the jurisdiction to hear this appeal." The Department is going to be badly embarrassed by the evidence, so they attempt to BLOCK it. So much for the scientific principles of the Department and its Aviation Medicine Branch!
The current situation is that the evidence from both parties on the question of jurisdiction has been presented and the decision is pending. The arguments at this level have nothing to do with the merits of either my evidence or the Department's on the relevance of colour vision in aviation. The Department is trying to block my campaign to have the merits of the case heard before the AAT by saying that I want to change ANO 47.3. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at ANO .47.3 for yourself and try to decipher what it means. Does it constitute a "standard"? Any interpretation may be applied to ANO 47.2 and as such it isn't worth the paper it is written on.
I would like to reflect on the implications of one possible result of the jurisdiction question. If the AAT decides that it does not have jurisdiction to hear this: case, then there is no other avenue open to have the issues looked at by an independent body. That would then mean that the power of the Secretary IS ABSOLUTE. He would be free to set ANY standard he so wishes without fear of challenge, not only on colour vision but any medical, engineering or other matter. That possibility I find horrendous.
The Department is presently implementing a further easing of restrictions on deuteranomals on a trial basis. Under the proposals a proven deuteranomal (see Part 1) who scores SIX or less errors on the Farnsworth Lantern test will have restrictions on night flying lifted. This might at first glance seem to be a big deal, but this is not the case. As a trade-off, all Protans, irrespective of their error score on the Farnsworth Lantern will fail the colour vision requirements. So, in fact, the overall numbers that fail will remain the same. It is ironic that this latest adjustment to "the standard" has again been made without any rational basis. In fact, it makes the Department look even sillier than it already did before.
Consider this: the error score allowed has gradually crept up (for DEUTANS only) from TWO to FOUR to SIX. The total exposures to the Farnsworth Lantern is EIGHTEEN. Now, either colour IS important, in which case six out of eighteen represents an absurd (i.e. dangerous) score, or colour IS NOT important and six, ten, twelve or eighteen errors are irrelevant. The truth of the matter is that the Department's easing of colour defective restrictions are politically motivated and have nothing whatsoever to do with scientific fact or the application of logic. The aim is to protect its own power, not to apply modern knowledge to modern aviation and its pilots.
As said earlier, I have a massive collection of documentation on the issues that surround the colour vision standard. I am prepared to share the evidence with any interested party. I welcome any criticisms or statements of support. It is a sad but undeniable fact that people with colour vision problems are unjustly discriminated against in a wide variety of employment situations. The pseudoscientific utterings of the Department of Aviation are probably the worst example of this discrimination and deserve to be exposed. Ignorance has until now been the Department's closest ally, but that will soon change. I thank A.O.P.A. for its continuing support in this fight and look forward to hearing from other colour embarrassed pilots.
For now; that is far as I can go with these articles.
Obviously, the next move will depend on the outcome of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's deliberations on its powers to hear matters such as this one. As soon as the decision is handed down, a bulletin will be published in the next available issue of AOPA magazine.